Anthropology through the magnifying glass

Recently I’ve been reading Pamela Druckerman’s book ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’.   A strong recommendation from a colleague led me to overcome my aversion to the book’s title, and it’s proven to be an interesting read.  I found that a lot of what Druckerman portrays as French parenting culture resonated with me as good sense and even reflected my own intuition.

This got me wondering where this intuition had come from, and it struck me that it might be from all the time I spent in France as a child.  Even so, Druckerman’s book sheds fascinating light on cultural dynamics that unless you are an adult and specifically a parent or parent-to-be would in all likelihood not be consciously on your radar.  I realised that I understand French culture better than I had been aware, but also that there is a lot that has passed me by.  And no doubt still continues to pass me by.

During the period of reading the book, another ‘cultural’ moment for me was watching Pablo Larrain’s excellent film ‘No’.  The film deals with the 1988 plebiscite and accompanying advertising campaign which resulted in the peaceful removal of Pinochet from office, following a fifteen-year dictatorship.

Having lived in Chile for a year over a decade ago, it was a total pleasure to spend a solid couple of hours immersed in the particular accent and idioms of the country.   This reignited a sense of connection I have felt to Chile since my working sabbatical there.  Again, I was struck both by how much and how little I understood the culture.  I know about the details of the Pinochet regime; I have some sense of the impact it has had on Chile to date.

But of course, over 10 years on from the end of the dictatorship, the country had moved on sufficiently that the legacy it left was only there if you knew how and where to look, and what kinds of questions you could ask (and what was verboten).  It wasn’t part of everyday conversation.  As Felicity Capon of the Telegraph writes of her former professor’s perspectives on Pinochet’s role in Chile today, ‘“Today is just a memory from the past… We have had a democracy for the past twenty years now and Pinochet is dead.  Most of the population does not consider it to be an issue any more. They’re not trying to cover it up; it’s just been worn down.”’

When I lived in Chile, I spent much of my year in Santiago, and the summer in a small town in the Lake District.  I worked for the majority of the time, and didn’t travel extensively.  I have tended to feel embarrassed by this fact over the years and mask it a little… ‘Well, I went to Uruguay’ (er, for a weekend); ‘I travelled in Patagonia’ (not that far down); ‘I didn’t really visit Argentina’ (no, you didn’t Louise – you put a foot over the border in a national park.  But you can justify this by pointing out that the economic crisis at the time meant it was deemed unsafe to venture further into the country).

But actually I gained so much from a more settled travel experience.  I took my Chilean drivers’ licence (let’s just say the pass standard, at the time at least, was rather less rigorous than here); I made local friends; I got to know a couple of areas of the country in depth – I really experienced living in these places.  It’s a similar story with France. I know one corner of the country especially well, and it’s always been a bit of a shameful secret that beyond this I know so little.  But again, there is much that is positive in forming a lasting bond with a particular place.

Today, there is such a temptation to treat travel as a process of ticking destinations off your list – the form gap years often take.   This is a behaviour I see some evidence in across family and friends.  There are so many wonderful places to experience, if you can afford to, both financially and in terms of time, why would you not want to visit this mountain or that island?   Travel is enriching.  But it can also be tiring.  Those gap years and sabbaticals, I know from what friends report, can become an exhausting and somewhat functional process, in which more time is spent in motion between destinations than in any one place.

This see-it-all, do-it-all orientation is symptomatic of the great choice we have today, the way the media and travel industry have widened our boundaries and opened up options, and of our relative affluence, even in straitened economic times.  But whenever we go somewhere for just a few days, and rush from honeypot to honeypot, what can we really hope to learn? What truths about the culture can we absorb?

And this is a facet of the bigger picture of a culture of decreasing attention spans – flitting from one thing to the next, engaging with social media while watching the TV and texting.  We are avid to learn the latest trend, and we fail to engage with deeper cultural movements.

Truth’s friend, the ethnographer, Harvard lecturer and cultural expert Grant McCracken, talks about the superficiality of the young trend maven’s knowledge, and notes that engagement with this kind of ‘fast’ culture needs to be underpinned by interest in ‘slow’ culture – the enduring edifices upon which fleeting trends are built (before being broken down again).

In line with this, McCracken notes that it is valuable to think in terms of ‘square-inch anthropology’ – by immersing oneself in a range of aspects of culture in depth (perhaps the role of pets, the meaning of marriage, the value of reading), we can form richer and more breakthrough insights both within a subject area and when we join the dots of our cultural understanding in unexpected ways.  For example – how does the evolving institute of marriage impact on the role of pets in households today?  I don’t know, but I’ve been waging a campaign to get a border collie for years without success, so it’s something for me to think about.